Thursday, June 14, 2012

trust at speakerconf

Trust plays a very important role at speakerconf. speakerconf is known as a place where you can be honest without fear of repercussions. Every year we have several presentations that are confidential, and those are often some of the most interesting presentations. Josh and I have made several decisions that encourage a high level of trust, and this blog entry describes those choices.

... it's who you know
Josh and I don't tend to keep people we can't trust within our networks. Therefore, when we began inviting people to speakerconf we already knew we were assembling a group of people that could be honest with each other. I believe the speakers had mutual trust with Josh and I, and that trust was easily extended to other people that Josh and I trusted.

After the first year we started inviting people using a simple rule: 75% of all invites will go to alumni. speakerconf alumni will already have existing relationships with other alumni, and they'll be more willing to share - due to their previous experiences at speakerconf. We always want new people and fresh ideas at speakerconf, but we don't want to lower the trust level by throwing in a larger group of people who haven't yet built strong relationships. We've experimented with inviting less alumni and never been happy with the results. For speakerconf 75% seems to be the magic number.

These days, Josh and I only invite new people to speakerconf based on alumni recommendations. Alumni recommendations are often for people from various backgrounds; which is perfect, as Josh and I prefer to have presenters with diverse experiences. I believe the key to embracing diversity while not compromising on trust is to focus on presenters that have mutual respect for each other despite their backgrounds.

Encourage relationship building
Every speakerconf begins with a meet & greet networking session. This session is usually at a hotel lounge area, and it's only purpose is for each of the speakers to get a chance to meet each other. Following the meet & greet, everyone is invited to an "unoffical" dinner. It's not required or covered by the conference, but it allows people to continue to get to know each other, if they like. Very rarely do any presenters skip this opening dinner.

During both the dinners and the open discussions we provide conference sponsored drinks - to get the honest discussions flowing. I'll be honest, when I'm stone cold sober I can be a bit shy. I get the impression that other speakers sometimes share this personality trait. The open discussions do often begin a bit timidly; however, after a round or two we quickly move to pulling no punches and diving head first into whatever interests us the most.

Off the record
At speakerconf, we don't even provide the option to record your talks. It would be great if we had some material that we could put on line for the rest of the community to benefit from, but we're not willing to sacrifice any level of honesty for the sake of information sharing. We've surveyed the presenters and they've unanimously agreed that they do not want their presentations to be recorded, and they would likely change what they said simply if a camera were present in the meeting room.

It's obvious, but we also remind everyone that if their presentation contains any sensitive information then they should begin by asking the audience not to repeat anything from the presentation. Also, at the beginning of every speakerconf we ask all the speakers to refrain from repeating (e.g. tweeting) any information without first consulting the source of the information.

Network
We don't wear nametags at speakerconf, and we don't go around the room and introduce ourselves. I personally hate nametags, and we found the introduction-go-around to be a bit dry and awkward. Instead, before every presenter speaks, Josh stands up and provides several facts about a person, and a single lie. It's up to the audience to decide which statements are which, though it's generally obvious due to the lie being the statement that caused everyone to laugh. It's fun, and turns the traditional awkward introduction into something you look forward to at the beginning of each presentation.

We don't officially organize seating for lunch or dinner at speakerconf, but we do encourage people to rotate who they sit with while they're dining. We found that the level of trust goes up greatly after you've taken the time to break bread with someone, and we want to encourage that trust building in anyway possible. Like I said, we don't organize anything specific here, we just lead by example; we try to pick our company for our next meal based on who we've spent the least amount of time with.

That's about all we do. There's nothing revolutionary about our methods; however, the result is an environment where trust goes a long way towards helping a presentation reach it's full potential.
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